PHOENIX (AP) — Kari Lake asked for a show of hands.
Who’s been canceled? Who’s lost friends? Has strained relations with family? Been indicted? Sued for defamation?
“If your hand did not go up in any of that, then I do think you need to work a little harder. I really do,” Lake told an adoring crowd of Michigan Republicans gathering last month on Mackinac Island.
Lake launched a U.S. Senate campaign for an Arizona seat in a splashy Scottsdale rally on Tuesday, having never conceded that she lost last year’s race for Arizona governor. She is trying out new messages and courting the support of national Republicans she’s insulted in the past. But the former television news host isn’t backing down on the things that made her a star on the far right — her combativeness with perceived enemies, her fealty to Donald Trump and her willingness to defend his election lies.
That worries some Republicans who fear she will cost them a race that could decide control of the Senate.
“Kari Lake can win, but she’s going to have to run a different campaign than she ran two years ago, and she’s going to have to become a serious candidate who talks about serious issues that everyday Republican and independent voters care about,” said Chris Baker, an Arizona-based Republican political consultant. “And she hasn’t done a lot of that this year.”
At her rally Tuesday, Lake didn’t concede she lost the last election, but didn’t say it was stolen and made only a brief mention of it during a nearly 50-minute-long speech. She said she’s “never going to walk away from the fight to restore honest elections.”
“We did everything right, and we saw the disaster of election day in Arizona,” Lake said. “Sometimes when things don’t go the way we expect, we find ourselves questioning and asking why … I think God has bigger plans for us.”
She heaped praise on Trump, who recorded a video endorsement that was played at the rally, and repeatedly attacked the media, calling journalists covering her event “fake news fools.”
“When I’m back in the White House, I need strong fighters like Kari in the Senate,” Trump said.
Lake also offered conciliatory words for voters who disagree with her, a sharp contrast with her last campaign, when she didn’t want support from establishment Republicans, even after she defeated them in the GOP primary.
“I may disagree with Arizonans who voted for Joe Biden,” Lake said. “But I don’t think you’re a threat to democracy. You are a citizen just like me.”
After once calling Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell an “old bat” and saying he needed to be replaced as Republican leader, Lake now says she would support him if she’s elected. Last year, she called abortion “the ultimate sin” and supported a near-total ban on abortion in Arizona. Now, she says she wouldn’t endorse a federal abortion ban.
National Republican leaders think a GOP candidate could take advantage of what could be a three-way race if Sen. Kyrsten Sinema seeks reelection. Sinema, a former Democrat who became an independent last year, is preparing for a campaign but has not said whether she will seek a second term. U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego is likely to have the Democratic nomination locked up.
Lake met recently with Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who leads the GOP’s Senate campaign work as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and saw several other GOP senators during a trip to Washington. Daines has publicly urged Lake to focus on the future instead of relitigating past elections.
A former television news anchor for nearly three decades in the Phoenix market, Lake was already known locally but had no national profile when she walked away from her career in 2021, declared “journalism is dead,” and took a sledgehammer to televisions showing cable newscasts.
Right up to Election Day, she embraced Trump, appeared with right-wing figures like Steve Bannon and blasted establishment Republicans, including the late Sen. John McCain.
She lost the governor’s race by less than 1 point. About four in 10 Arizona voters in the 2022 election said they were “very concerned” that Lake’s views were too extreme, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of U.S. voters. She lost 11% of Republicans. About 63% of independents and 96% of Democrats backed the winner, Democrat Katie Hobbs.
But Lake became a national figure on the far right with her television appearances and her defense of Trump’s election falsehoods.
In the months since, Lake has traveled extensively to speak to Republican groups around the country, her remarks focused largely on her fraudulent election claims. Her frequent trips to Iowa, the state where she was born but also the host of the leadoff presidential caucuses, have raised eyebrows in political circles. Some have floated her as a running mate for Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
She sued Maricopa County, claiming election officials deliberately created printer malfunctions to cause her to lose. She lost, and her unsuccessful appeals have bounced through the court system, all the way up to the Arizona Supreme Court.
She also was sued for defamation by Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican official who says he has faced death threats because she lied about how he conducted the election.
Last month she was back in court for her third election-related case, where she watched as her lawyer argued that Arizona’s public records law entitles her to see copies of signed vote-by-mail envelopes. She claims reviewing the signatures would allow her to prove that ballots were counted that should not have been, drawing parallels to an unprecedented partisan recount of ballots conducted by Trump supporters on behalf of state Senate Republicans following the 2020 election.
Her fights over the 2020 and 2022 elections have only further endeared her to Arizona Republicans, who nominated a slate of Trump-backed candidates who spread election lies and went on to lose in the midterms. She enters the Senate race as an immediate front-runner in the GOP primary, where she’ll face Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb.
Stung by unexpected Senate losses last year, Republicans in Washington have vowed to take an active role in primaries to help more electable candidates earn the GOP nomination. Lake so far has received a warm, if tentative, reception in the nation’s capital, where influential officials who control the party’s money and priorities are signaling that they’re open to embracing her if she’s willing to broaden her base of support.
“We have had productive conversations with Kari Lake and her team,” Daines said in a statement. “She is a talented campaigner with an impressive ability to fire up the grassroots. We have a clear path to victory with two Democrats on the ballot in Arizona.”
The NRSC has not ruled out endorsing Lake in the primary, according to a person familiar with the organization’s strategy who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. Support from the NRSC would potentially open up a lucrative funding stream and signal to donors that Lake has the support of key GOP senators.
After harshly criticizing McConnell during her gubernatorial campaign, she now says she would support the Republican leader in Congress because he would be preferable to Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
“If the choice is between McConnell and Schumer, who are you going to vote for? It’s not going to be Schumer,” Lake told the AP.
That’s a change of tone from a year ago, when she called McConnell an “old bat” at a campaign rally and said it was time to replace him as the GOP leader with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Even as recently as August, she appeared to poke fun at McConnell freezing up during a press conference.
“I don’t even think he can control what comes out of his mouth anymore,” Lake said on Bannon’s podcast. “I mean there’s something going on right now with him.”
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New York and Linley Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.